Parents of Missionaries, Another Group with Hidden Sorrow

September 19, 2012 § 23 Comments

POMbookEarly on in their book Parents of Missionaries, Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz address the topic of disenfranchised grief. Not only is unaccepted grief an issue for cross-cultural workers when they return but also for those they leave behind when they go to serve.

The authors write that disenfranchised grief “results when we deny or condemn our feelings or believe God doesn’t care about our pain. It also occurs when others criticize our feelings or consider us too strong to need support.”

Grief for the parents of missionaries (POMs) should not be minimized or ignored, nor should parents feel guilty for this normal emotion. It is very real, as is the loss that is experienced. For some it is a loss of physical or emotional closeness to their children and grandchildren. For some it is a loss of dreams for the family. For some it is a loss of confidence in discerning God’s will.

At times the grief can feel overwhelming. One mother quoted in Parents of Missionaries says, “My prayers turned from asking God to keep you safe and bless you . . . to please take my life away because surely I was not created to live with pain that . . . hurts more than childbirth.”

As I was making my way through Savageau and Stortz’s great book on this often neglected part of the missionary team—parents—I focused on this topic of disenfranchised grief, making note of instances where healthy grieving over the absence of missionary children was stifled. Following are those examples, quoted directly from Parents of Missionaries. Each one is followed by its page number, in part to demonstrate how they show up throughout the work.

I hope this list will be an encouragement to POMs who are grieving, letting them know they are not alone. I hope it will also help us all be better companions in grief to those who are letting their children go without letting go of them. May we not repeat these discouraging words or represent these unhealthy attitudes, to others or to ourselves:

[One mother] experienced profound self-doubt and feared others would take a critical view if they knew of her inner struggle. She believed having an adult child enter missions would not upset a real Christian. (24)

One workshop attendee asked, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like they’re dead,” while another said, “Having a child enter missions isn’t as bad as having a child outside the faith.” A few missions-minded people have . . . argued that only joy should abound when young people choose a career in missions. (28)

[Some] have honestly asked how POM grief differs from whining. (28)

“We’re not supposed to have needs of our own since we’re in the ministry.” (32)

Men often mask their grief. They typically cope with conscious grief privately, downplay their feelings, intellectualize about loss, and focus on solving loss-related problems. (34)

Our culture’s lack of patience with grief causes many of us to feel ashamed of our feelings and hide our grief. (35)

The assertion that “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) does not qualify as a rationale for running away from our feelings. (80)

“I feel like a whiner and complainer after typing up what I wrote in my journal. Maybe you can use it as a bad example of a missionary mom.” (94)

“I miss [my daughter] more than ever before—and I feel really guilty about it.” (94)

“I know I should be excited and thankful that my daughter and her husband will leave for the mission field in August, but I’m having a hard time with my emotions!” (120)

Other POMs who cry easily are not as willing to be seen as vulnerable. One missionary observed about his mom, “Talk of kids, vacation, future plans, how long before we see you again can make her cry instantly. We pretty much can’t talk to her about anything. That was her request, and my dad’s. I think it’s not healthy, and she agrees.” (130)

We sometimes erroneously assume everyone else feels happy amid the holiday bustle and blame ourselves for feeling down or blame others for stealing our joy. Our culture conditions us to expect happiness during the holidays, making normal life problems (that don’t magically disappear on command) seem particularly hard to accept on festive occasions. (216)

Some POMs hesitate to cast their cares upon God because they feel ashamed of their own emotions. This keeps them from enjoying the relief and freedom He wants to offer. (262)

Of course, Parents of Missionaries isn’t just about grief. In fact, Savageau and Stortz write that the need for parent’s to grieve is “only half the story”:

You need to both grieve and change what you can in your life. Make decisions that move you toward fullness of life even though your missionary lives far away. What does God want to do with the rest of your life? . . . If you’re a POM, please look in the mirror and see yourself through our eyes as someone who has made a blessed sacrifice for the kingdom and someone God wants to use in unforeseen ways in days to come. You struggle because you love. Accept your feelings. Ask for and accept help. . . . And do all you can to help yourself.

So if you are a POM, read the whole book to learn how to better understand your loss and grief, how to seek out and receive help, from God and from others, and how to be the best support and teammate for your family members overseas. There can be joy even in the midst of grieving.

(Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz, Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008)

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§ 23 Responses to Parents of Missionaries, Another Group with Hidden Sorrow

  • Thanks for sharing this post, Craig. It really hits home for me since I’m moving to South Africa in a few months to serve as a missionary. Although my parents’ are supportive of my following God’s call, it’s hard for all us. We’re extremely close. We definitely “struggle because we love.” I’m ordering this book for my folks.

    • Craig says:

      That will be two great gifts for them: the book and letting them know you understand. Thanks so much for your comment. Blessings on your move.

  • lcmswrhcsmo says:

    This is a topic that I have often wondered about. Many of the missionaries that I deal with are young and are just starting families. What must it be like to be a first-time grandparent and have your adult child raising your grandchildren in a culture and with a language that is foreign to you? What must it be like to know, especially if your child is living in an impoverished country as many are, that the quality of life is not something that you would have chosen for them? There are so many under-explored topics. What a great resource!

  • sidebysideblog says:

    Good post – we are planning to move halfway across the world and this is something that I had not given much thought to at all.

  • Jo Liow says:

    Thank you – yours are thoughts one could ponder over. God bless!

  • Homemade says:

    My son, 22 and a college graduate, told me he’s decided to live out his life as a missionary in the 10-40 window, specifically Sudan, to build underground churches. This means he will die there. I can’t function, my grief has turned into depression. Our family is very close knit, all believers, and have always supported missionaries so I’m blessed that he wants to serve – but not to be martyred in a place that boldly murders Christians. My friends just dismiss my agony as selfishness and lack of faith. Is that what it is? The pain is just too much for me.

    • Craig says:

      Bless you for sharing so openly. You don’t sound like you are selfish or have a lack faith. You sound honest. I’m sorry you’ve felt dismissal from your friends. You need to be able to share with safe people who understand at least some of what you’re going through. If I could be one of those people for you, I’d love for you to contact me at clearingcustoms at live dot com .

  • Bev Skiles says:

    Being separated from your parents while you are on the mission field is truly very difficult. My mom was my best friend and she was my encourager and supporter. She never cried to us and said, ” I wish you would come back to the USA.I can[t stand this.” I am sure she may have thought it. Because of her selfless support we have been able to remain on the mission field for a goodly number of years. You cannot minimize how someone else feels. I am glad for the Parents of Missionaries group because it helps you verbalize how you are handling all of it. Everyone is different. We were a pretty stoic family so we tried to be brave when we said our goodbyes thinking “this might be the last time I ever see you or you see me.” We thought it but we did not fall apart. When my mom passed away in l999 I was on my way back to the USA for the funeral. I was speaking to a Korean girl. She said, “Oh , it would be so awful if my mom died. I would have so many thinsg I wanted to say to her. My response, “AS we are far away people, we must say what we have to say to those we love and leave behind because we don[t know that there might be another chance.” Don'[t leave unfinished business. Easier said than done. God bless you one and all. God is our sustainer. I remember Grandma Elrod, Mrs. Isabel Dittmore’s mother saying when she went out to Tibet as a single missionary in the 30″s. Someone said to grandmother, “How can you stand it that Isabel is going so far away? She answered”She said,”Oh, she is just a prayer away.” That always encouraged me so. sometime we might be right next to someone physically but not communicate. But when we are half a world away, we have the best postman in the Universe, God. God is faithful. WE know that. Now we miss seeing our grandchildren and great grandchildren grow up but we are committed to our calling until that might change. God bless. Bev. Skiles

    • Thanks, Bev, for sharing. I’m glad you added your thoughts to this post. We have much to learn from people like you who have been on the field for a “goodly number of years.” You are an inspiration and encouragement to me and my family. Happy New Year!

    • Anonymous says:

      Loved your comments,Bev. Katie and Andrew are returning to the States after eleven years. I think for that mother that feels like she is loosing her son to Sudan, it would help her if she could make a short visit there. Then she would know exactly what it is like and that might put to rest some of her fears.

  • dianestortz says:

    Craig, I somehow missed this post when you wrote it in 2012 and just came across it this morning. Thank you so much for reading our book and writing about it so thoughtfully and for “getting it”! I’ve forwarded a link to your post to Cheryl so that she can read it too.

    Although neither of us is much involved with POM ministry now, we still care greatly about what POMs go through. We did a one-hour workshop for POMs at a missions gathering last fall and were amazed, once again, at what happens in a room when POMs hear that it is OK to feel what they feel and when they realize there are others who feel as they do–the tears begin to flow (and, we hope, some healing begins).

    The ministry of NNPOM went to new leadership a couple of years ago but that team was unable to keep it going. I’m now keeping the pomnet.org site as just a hub with links to resources, and perhaps I will add some of the tip sheets Cheryl and I developed. Some new resources are popping up, and some of the missions agencies I know of try to reach out and include their POMs, but I think the ministry of our book is going to be needed for a very long time yet.

    Thank you again for this post. Should you ever want to highlight the book again, please consider linking to this page of my author website: http://www.dianestortz.com/books/parents-of-missionaries/. I’m going to try to add a quote from your post there too if that is OK with you.

    Blessings,
    Diane Stortz

    • How nice to hear from you, Diane. Thank you for writing Parents of Missionaries, and thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I’m glad you found it. I would be happy for you to add a quotation on your website.

  • Linda martin says:

    Great article! I can identify!

  • Joyce Crotts says:

    As a 30-year veteran missionary, still on the field (Papua New Guinea), this is one of the hardest times of our family’s story. My parents have been supportive, but yet they yearn and especially as they grow more and more feeble. I left my husband on the field and went home to care for them during a crisis, later my husband went Stateside too, and I was there with them for 8 months last year. I know their hearts wish I could be with them still, but they don’t want me to leave a work they cherish as well. I believe such parents will share in the “verse-29 blessing” – Matt. 19:29;
    Mark 10:29, 30 “And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.”

  • Tina Ginn says:

    I just ordered this book for myself and my husband. We said goodbye to our daughter August 2015 and we are supportive of her and extremely proud of her selflessness and willingness to go and be his hands and feet but we are struggling. We struggle with the lack of communication. We don’t know how we are supposed to be. If we are to pushy or needy, wanting to communicate with her and know how she is often. I don’t want to be a burden to her if she even feels this way but I don’t want our relationship to suffer I want it to thrive. I believe God intends for missionaries to continue to have a growing thriving relationship with their families at home and I need to just know how to deal with all these emotions. I can’t wait to have some insight. No one can help me with this because none of our friends have been where we are. When organizations prepare people to be missionaries I believe they need to also call in the parents and prepare them for what they will be experiencing because our feelings are real and we don’t know how to deal.

  • jeannie ownbey says:

    This is just what I’ve needed, someone or something to validate my feelings of grief as I struggle to joyfully accept my crosscultural missionary daughter’s calling. It’s not that I lack faith. I want her to be where God is calling her to serve and I, by no means, want to do anything that would interfere with that. BUT, it hurts!

    • So glad this helps, Jeannie. You express the emotional wrestling well. I hope you’re able to get a copy of Parents of Missionaries and hear more from those who are walking the same path.

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